It has happened to everyone sometimes: suddenly our brain goes haywire, shuts down, it is as if a small short circuit is produced that disconnects all neuronal connections. If this happens to you often enough, especially in stressful situations, it is very likely that you have an excellent working memory.
A good working memory succumbs more easily to the effects of stress
Some people have better "working memory" than others. It's like they have an extra pair of hands available to do some mental juggling. Working memory is where we store data for a short period of time, while we use it to carry out other processes. For example, to do an arithmetic operation we have to progressively store the numbers in our working memory while we perform the calculation. Working memory is also what allows us to follow the thread of a speech without wandering.
While it may seem good to have great working memory, a recent study by psychologists at the University of Chicago found that people with better memories are particularly prone to memory lapses, especially when under pressure.
These researchers recruited 83 young people and subjected them to various cognitive tests for attention, memory and self-control. Later they had to answer a series of complex arithmetic questions; first they had the opportunity to solve them without pressure and then a little stress was added.
Finally, the participants completed a test aimed at assessing the ability of working memory: they had to solve a series of basic mathematical operations or answer grammar comprehension questions, each interspersed with the presentation of a single letter on the screen. Eventually, they had to try to remember the letters in the correct order.
The results left no doubt: the pressure negatively affected the performance of those with good working memory, but did not affect those with poor memory.
Why can working memory cause mental blocks?
Psychologists discovered that the key lies in the level of attention control. In practice, it happens that people with good working memory use their extra pair of "mental hands" to solve problems, thus implementing more sophisticated and demanding strategies that normally allow them to execute tasks successfully.
But when distracted by the pressure, these people continue to rely on that extra pair of hands, thinking they can apply their complex strategies, but the problem is that those hands are tied because the brain is "overloaded". Thus appears the mental block, that feeling of total lack of memory.
Thankfully, the researchers suggest two strategies for dealing with this problem:
1. Reduce your anxiety level. Thus we get that the tension does not distract us and we can really focus on the activity, freeing up the cognitive resources we need to apply more complex memorization strategies.
2. Increase our attentional self-control, this can be achieved by practicing mindfulness meditation, for example, or by simply walking for half an hour a day in a natural environment. In this way we enhance concentration and memory, increasing our cognitive reserves.